When Nicole Taylor set out to write her first cookbook, the Georgia native knew the women in her family would be the main characters.
It was from them she learned how to cook with Southern flair minus any written recipes. After she moved to New York City she began to marry her style with her new experiences with food and culture. That fusion is the inspiration for her debut recipe book, The Up South Cookbook: Chasing Dixie in a Brooklyn Kitchen.
But getting her book written and published wasn’t easy—especially as she set out to redefine people’s typical idea of southern cuisine. We spoke to her about finding her confidence, the women in her family, and how she overcame the many publishers who tried to pigeonhole her as a black woman in the food industry.
We also visited Nicole’s kitchen where she showed us how to make Collards Gomae, one of the tastiest recipes on from the book. It’s so good, you might want to prepare it for your next holiday feast. Check out the video below!
What was the process like for beginning to write the Up South Cookbook: Chasing Dixie in a Brooklyn Kitchen?
The entire process of birthing a cookbook, 75% is confidence 25% execution. When I am not confident, I can not get anything done. Everything turns into a feeling of I can’t do this like a massive mountain but when I’m confident I can.
How did you get over the hump?
I think it was a series of things, one of the things is you know I went to Martha’s Vineyard. I finished the book and got my stuff in gear. I finished it up there in the summer, I came back and in September, my agent started shopping it around. I think she sent it to 19 people and we took probably like two or three meetings. All the others were rejects.
A lot of people in some of the meetings were like, “ Yeah, can this be a soul food book?” I was feeling a way about it at first. I was willing to compromise and then The Countryman Press (W.W. Norton) were really the only ones who said, no we love it. They didn’t ask me to change nothing, not the name—nothing. That was a process; it took a year from my agent shopping it to signing on a dotted line. Now for some people it takes that time period or longer or shorter.
As a black person in the food world what kind of obstacles do you face?
I think the biggest obstacles are the stereotypes. The stereotypes around what kind of food you are cooking or what kind of food you are interested in. It’s some of the things that people think. People think because you are black, or a person of color or even a woman, I have to know everything about their culture, but they don’t have to know anything about mine. When, I say culture I mean in terms of food. I have to be up and know what restaurants are open or closed and who the chefs are. Some of my white counterparts, they don’t have to do that. They just have to be cool and hip. So, I think some of the challenges I face are that the confidence can come off as arrogance. I am southern and I was taught that you need to look a certain way at all times and I think that can come off to some people in this food world as a sour thumb. I stick out. It can be a misconception for being a bitch, the confidence can be.
How long did it take you to write the book?
From the time that I got my cookbook deal, which was August and which by that time I already had the concepts for the head notes like what I was going to write for each head note and all the recipes. Maybe not tested all the way a million times but some of them were things that were already in my repertoire. I had a base. You have to have a massive outline. So all my chapters were outlined. I had some head notes, I had some chapter openers, but I started before this time last year. My book was due the day before or after Valentines Day. I was off social media for two months the last two months to finish this book. There were days I didn’t take a bath I stayed in the house. I did hire an assistant to get organized and to come help me cook, because for two days a week I was cooking for two days straight. I had to test and retest and make sure stuff is written out properly. That’s only one portion of it. I had to story tell in the book. You think about something I worked on for the last four years. It’s blood sweat and tears, confidence and a lot self-doubt. That’s what I was saying about the confidence thing.
What was the confidence that you felt like you needed that you didn’t have?
Well definitely, ‘am I doing this right?’ Like when you guys tasted the collard greens and you were like this is good, that makes me feel good because to me cooking, that’s just me being me. I have friends over all the time and people enjoy my food but will people enjoy it enough and will buy a book and they will say “oh my gosh” this is great. So that in itself to put out any work as a woman, particularly as a black woman, to put out any body of work something that is very personal and for people to be able to judge it in some way has a lot to do with your confidence. The writing portion of it you know, feeling like or trying to feel like– is it ok to write about my black family—My black working class family.
Being very confident writing about them gave me so much strength. I think about my 20’s I’m not going to say I ran away from that but it was definitely something I embraced in terms of my family roots. I always understood who my family was but definitely being in New York City and writing this book, I have a new sense of pride and appreciation for the sacrifices of a bunch of people in my family.
Can you describe one of the stories in the cookbook?
So, I think about my great aunt who was probably, basically like a grandmother to me. I was five years old. I talk about this in the book. I was basically raised by my two aunts my mom and a bunch of other people in the family but I lived in the house with my two aunts and my uncle and my mom. They put me on the plane at 5-years-old. I flew to Washington DC by myself at 5 and spent the entire summer with my great aunt. She was so mean ya’ll. She was the kind of person you couldn’t go into the refrigerator unless you ask she was old school stern mean woman but that was a way of survival for her. She had left the south and moved north and in our family that was a big thing. But I talk about her a lot in the book because her whole life was centered around cooking for white people and cleaning for them. She was a very prideful woman, who believed in saving every dime she had and she believed in family and she believed in God. She died my freshman year of college and I never even really thought about it but now, I think about a big influence she had on my life and the influence being about persevering, about pressing through being confident, I take all that from her. But in the book, I talk about her making these wonderful yeast rolls. She would leave the leftover dough, then at the end she would make cinnamon rolls for me. She was so mean, if she thought you were a bad kid she would tell you, “I cant keep little so and so’s kid. She is too bad don’t bring her over here.” Thats how she was. But if she loved you, she loved you and she would do anything and that was her way of showing affection. I was one of the few kids and her great niece when she died is one of the first thing people stood up and said, she loved a lot of things and one thing she loved was me. She poured a lot into me, she would be so freaking proud and it’s a lot of people in the book that are like that. You work for someone for 50, 60 years doing something to survive, but to see another generation do it to make a living, I don’t take it lightly writing a cookbook cause she could have written a cookbook too.
So those are the stories—so many women in the book, women in my family who sacrificed totally and suppressed depression and a whole bunch of things to really provide for themselves and to make a better life. My mother is a very smart woman, stylish, very funny, and the life of the party. Growing up when people tell me you are just like your mother, I would scream but now I realize that I am. However, she says it all the time, ‘you did what I didn’t do and that was to leave Athens, move to Atlanta, and move to New York.’ So the book is about food but its a really homage to those folks who really poured and sacrificed for me to be able to do stuff like this. When I go to the publishing world and I tell this story do they get this? Do they understand the depth what it means to be a black woman and to grow up in the 50’s like my mother and great aunts my grandmother and other people? I don’t think they get the depths of what that means around food.